What’s the minimum amount of alcohol in wine?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

What’s the minimum amount of alcohol in wine?

—Lucinda, Queenstown, Md.

Dear Lucinda,

The U.S. government recognizes wine as containing not less than 7 percent and not more than 24 percent of alcohol by volume. If a wine is between 7 and 13.9 percent alcohol by volume, the label can simply read “table wine,” or it can list the percentage. The percentage listed on the label can vary within 1.5 percent in either direction.

The vast majority of wines we see are listed about 12 to 14 percent, but it’s not that unusual to see bold red wines clocking in a degree or two higher (at least as reported on their wine labels). Alcohol percentages were a hot-button issue a few years ago—some wine lovers felt there was a line in the sand, and they preferred wines below 14 percent alcohol, but I’ve never been one to pick a wine simply because of that number on the label.

The biggest factor that determines the alcohol percentage in a wine is the sugar in the grapes, which is converted to alcohol during fermentation. Grapes, like all fruits, can only get so ripe before they spoil. The type of grape, climate and weather, harvest decisions, yeasts and fermentation processes can all influence the level of alcohol in the finished product, but it’s still a relatively small window.

—Dr. Vinny

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